Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Early Memory

I had my first half of kindergarten in Houston, in a wonderful classroom with a kind teacher, who later gave me a copy of the complete Peter Rabbit series, which she wrote a note in, and which I still have. For my second half of kindergarten, we lived in New Orleans, and I had a terrible teacher.

I remember arriving for my first day of kindergarten in New Orleans. There was a large jungle gym in the playground, and many children (big kids) were hanging from it all over. And they were singing the Pink Floyd song "We don't need no education." All of them. I thought, wow, these are tough kids at this school.

I remember this clearly, and yet it is entirely implausible to me that it actually occurred as I've described it here. That song isn't anachronistic for 1980, but I still can't imagine that there was actually a group of elementary school kids on a jungle gym, mostly hanging upside down, belting out this song in unison. It just can't be. (The fact that the song contains a chorus of children anyway makes it extra-suspicious.)

It's an interesting memory, though. Think how tough those big kids looked to me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Waterfall vs. Iterative Models

Most people only know one way to run a project; they use a structure that in software development is called a "waterfall model." In a waterfall model, each stage of the project is finished in order, and the results enable the next stage, until you are finished.

For instance, in writing a term paper for school, you might choose a topic, gather some references about the topic, read them while taking notes or making notecards, produce an outline for your intended paper, write a first draft, and then produce a final paper. I think this is the basic process we were all taught in school, and sometimes teachers would even make you turn in intermediate steps just to make sure you were using the process.

An "iterative" model is a different way of doing things, and I think for some types of projects it is superior. In an iterative model, rather than finishing an entire stage before moving onto the next, you divide your project into iterations. At the finish of each iteration, you will have done some of all of the appropriate kinds of work, and ideally you will have some kind of product.

If you applied an iterative model to writing a term paper, your first iteration might result in a very rudimentary draft. You would have gathered only a few sources and skimmed them, produced a very sketchy outline, and put together the bare bones of the paper. The goal should be to end up with a crappy paper at the end of this first iteration. From having done the work so far, you should now know what kind of sources you need and want, and have a good idea where the paper is going. The next cycle will incorporate more sources and be much more complete, and will result in the next draft. You can continue this process of refinement indefinitely (or until the paper is due).

I'm only sketching this out in a very basic way, but there are a few obvious advantages of using an iterative model. First, as soon as you've finished the first iteration, you are always ready to turn in something. Even that horrible first draft can probably get you some grade. In software development, this makes even more sense - even a very "sketchy" program that runs allows people to see visible progress.

Second, you learn a lot during each iteration. When your users or clients see the sketchy program, they will be filled with ideas about what it should do, or you may learn that it wasn't what they wanted after all. Even writing an extremely rough draft of a paper often gives you a very good idea of how it should proceed.

Third, an iterative model prevents the major drawback of a waterfall model - that you may never finish a stage to your satisfaction. If you have to have the whole paper planned out before you begin, you might not get there. If you can't hammer out a complete set of requirements for your software project, you could lose weeks or months or even years that you could have been making progress on other fronts.

Ed taught a computer science class last semester, and many of his students turned in a final project that didn't run. I can't help but think some of them would have been helped by using an iterative model (as well as starting earlier and all of the other usual student tricks). It's better to turn in the 2nd generation code that runs than to turn in the niftier 3rd generation code that doesn't. Using an iterative model lets you hedge your bets this way - at nearly every stage you've produced something of value.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Feeling

Last night as I went to bed, I felt a strong feeling of not-rightness in my body. It was very similar to one component of being very sick, but it didn't have any actual symptoms - no pains, no fever, nothing physically wrong at all, except for a feeling of wrongness, of dis-ease. It made me want to moan and thrash around.

I've had this feeling before at bedtime, and I had it really strongly in the hospital the night of my surgery. I'd woken up from the surgery around noon or so, feeling actually pretty good and happy to be alive, and then I steadily deteriorated until I was an absolute wreck around bedtime, filled with crippling anxieties and such a strong feeling of something being wrong with my body that I wanted to die.

I wonder what that feeling is. It must be, at least in cases like last night, psychological. I doubt anything was actually wrong with me physically. I may have been overtired, but usually once you lie down and prepare to sleep, that doesn't feel so bad.

I don't know.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Final Grades

I got an A in both of my classes. I am pleased. (My school does not have +/-, so a letter grade is all you get.)

I knew I would have an A in Prob/Stats given that I had an A on basically every single thing for the entire semester (except perhaps for getting a B on one homework sometime), and given that I felt I aced the final. The class was moderately easy and fairly boring.

Discrete Math I wasn't sure about. I felt that I aced the final. Other than that, there were two exams during the semester. I got a 64% on the first one and was given the opportunity to retake it for up to 80% credit, but this re-test was never graded and returned, and I did not ace it. I got 100% on the second test. There was one very small homework assignment, but I never turned it in. I did a small project and write-up on my own but did not ask for credit for it.

So that's that. Another successful semester in the bag.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Gift of the Lazi

Last night, I had to go to Walmart because we were out of cat food (such that the cats got a packet of for-human-consumption salmon for dinner instead, about which they did not complain) and because we have a gift exchange at work today and I needed a gift for it, and some kind of wrapping material, etc. Ed came with me, and as we were checking out, we were talking about the fact that neither of us has obtained, or even really thought about, a Christmas gift for the other.

Saturday, we're going to the mall. We need to buy gifts for the gift exchange we're having with my family at Christmas, and we need to buy gifts for Sunday night, when we hang out with his family. And I need to get something to wear that night, to my office Christmas party. Sunday around brunchtime is his sister's wedding shower (so I'm finally getting to meet her), and then of course Sunday night we hang out with his family and do their Christmas.

I like Christmas but I'm always remiss about the shopping (as so many people are; I'm sure the mall will be a joy on Saturday). So the idea that I also need to get something for Ed is...argh. And on his side, he used up all of his ideas getting my birthday present earlier this month.

Thus, by mutual consent, what we are getting each other for Christmas, at least for now, is the convenience of not having to get each other anything. It's just what I've always wanted!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Crying, Eureka

Last night, I took the final for my Discrete Math class. It's been a wonderful, fun, and somewhat amazing class (amazing in that I had no idea what discrete math was when I started, and only registered for the class because the one I wanted to take was cancelled and it was in a convenient time slot).

It has also been a stressful class. Although I want to study math forever, I really have a love/hate relationship with it. In short, I love math that I already understand, and sort of hate the struggle to learn new math. But once I start to understand the new math I will love it as well. (I have a very similar experience with music; I almost always hate listening to anything new, but as soon as the newness wears off - usually around the 2nd or 3rd exposure - I'm all over it.) I have a low threshold for frustration, so if I don't understand new math right away I tend to get disproportionately upset.

Occasionally, I get to learn new math that I immediately understand. This tends to be things like definitions around functions (onto, one-to-one, etc.), propositional logic, set theory, probability, and so on. These are really exciting and wonderful experiences for me - all the joy of a new way of thinking, with none of the suffering.

Anyway, returning to my Discrete class. Some of it has been the easy, delicious stuff. Other parts were really hard. The hardest part for me was recursively defined relations. These are sequences like the Fibonacci numbers, where the most natural definition is how to get the "next" number. In class, we "solved" these by coming up with the closed-form rule: the rule that tells you how to get, for instance, the 1000th Fibonacci number without having to figure out the preceding 999. We used tricks. We used generating functions.

On the final exam, we were given a series that didn't respond to any of these methods. We were to solve it "by inspection", which means "look at it and figure it out." Looking back, this one seems simple to me, but I had a very hard time with it. Here it is:

a[1] = 1
a[k+1] = k^2 * a[k]

so the terms are

a[1] = 1 (given)
a[2] = 1^2 * a[1] = 1
a[3] = 2^2 * a[2] = 4
a[4] = 3^2 * a[3] = 36
a[5] = 4^2 * a[4] = 576
and so on

I won't give the solution here in case anyone wants to figure it out for themselves, but taking the test, I stared at this. I tried to reason through it. I drew a picture. I wrote out the first six terms.

And then I cried. I knew I needed to get an A on the test in order to have a good chance of an A in the class, and this question was 1/6 of the points. And solving recursively defined series by inspection is something I can "never" do. So I actually cried. And then I dried my eyes and tried to calm down. I started writing out the terms in terms of how they were calculated, and this got me to the solution (which I at first didn't recognize, until I noticed that it really did correspond to each term). Then I had to do a (very easy) proof by induction to show that my solution was correct, and I was done.

I've noticed that I often get a difficult math thing immediately after crying. I think crying is one way of frustration "breaking", in the way that sweating is the breaking of a fever. Once the frustration breaks, you're calm again, and ready to proceed a bit diligently (if hopelessly), and insight can make its way through your brain again.

I am getting much better all the time at figuring out what to try next, in math. It used to be that I'd get frustrated and give up, and then the next day it would occur to me what else I could have tried, and then I wouldn't bother. Now I can often think of the next thing to try right away, and just do it. I'm sure my tolerance for frustration is increasing too. And I am succeeding at my explicit goal of learning that I can get better at math through effort.

It's been a good semester.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Christmas Specials

By John Scalzi, The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time, including

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)

In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Not Just "Difficult"

I am in love with this cartoon. I think it's the books:
From lolgod.

(I want her book.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Living Each Day

At lunch, I received a fortune cookie that said

LIVE EACH DAY AS THOUGH IT IS YOUR LAST

and when I thought about how I would live my last day, this seemed like absolutely terrible advice. If I knew I was dying tonight at bedtime, assuming I didn't spend the day moping or railing against the cruelty of my fate, I would surely live the day in a more or less hedonistic fashion. Between phone calls to tell people I loved them (which would surely get old if I did it every day), I would eat rich foods (no vegetables unless perhaps a creamed spinach came my way), blow off work and school, and just generally try to relax and have a good time.

So, how ought one to live each day? The sort of obvious answer is that you should live it in accordance with whatever you know about it. If it's your last day to file graduate school applications, you ought to file them. If it's your first day of law school, you should probably go to class. But the idea behind "live each day as though it is your last" is surely to cast some kind of extra perspective to help you do better than you might otherwise. So in that vein, what would the good advice be?

I think you ought to live each day as though you're going to live a long time. What will you see when you look back at this time in your life, and what do you want to see? Will you see yourself working hard to get what you want? Will you see yourself laboring futilely because you never thought about your actual priorities? Will the whole decade disappear in a blur of tv-watching and beer-drinking? Will this be the time you saw the first glimmers of the theorem that eventually won you the Fields Metal?

I remember something C.S. Lewis wrote. He said that since we are going to live eternally (a believe I don't share, obviously), we ought to mind our personality traits and trends. If you find yourself growing more irritable over time, then carried out to eternity, this would become hellish. So we ought to spend our time, at the very least, trying to improve our characters across the board. That's not a bad idea.

It depends on what you care about. Do you care how you are remembered? How do your actions today contribute to what you hope your obituary says? Or do you mostly care about having a good time, in which case, what are you doing today to either have a good time, or let you have a good time in the future? If you want to contribute to a field, are you working on your 10,000 hours?

One thing I care a lot about myself is memories. I try to choose activities that I remember later, that give my life some richness. Things that are relaxing and almost boring, like watching television, napping, or mindlessly surfing the Internet, do not have this property. Even if they are desirable in the moment, over time they blur together and add little to my life.

I find that difficulty is a good proxy for meaningfulness, for me. Learning new math, taking a long hike, reading a non-pulp (for once) book...these are things that stay with me. I look back at them and feel that something has really happened and I wasn't just taking up space or killing time. Even among similar activities, difficulty makes a difference. Eating a spicy rather than a bland food. Hiking uphill rather than flat. Strength training with low reps and heavy weights rather than light weights and high reps. Learning theoretical rather than practical math.

So for me, taking a more difficult path is somewhat key to feeling satisfied in life. Other people naturally work hard all the time, and may need to remember to relax and have a little fun. What works for you?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Girly

Ed and I were at Wal-Mart recently looking at tools. I forget what he wanted to buy - a wrench, maybe. And I pointed out that they had a whole little toolkit for women - a bright pink toolbox filled with pink-handled tools. We both laughed at the ridiculous application of girly aesthetics.

"But, you know," I said, "we make fun of this, but what is the rest of this aisle?"

Everything was black. The men's toolkits were black with fake chrome. Some things were dark green and black. Everywhere, things had obviously been aesthetically augmented to be manly.

Many aisles of the store are the same way. Razors. Women's are pink, with names like Venus, and soft wavy lines. Men's are "Mach 3" and "Turbo" and everything else that suggests lean, hard-edged machines full of power.

The pink disposable razors are not different from the navy blue ones. I see the navy ones as neutral and the pink ones as girl-coded, but that's because that's how gender is arranged in our culture: male is the default, girl is "special." Plenty of women would buy and use blue or black or silver razors without thinking twice, but few men would want the pink ones, or the wavy-handled Venus ones.

Girl things are for girls only.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Software Operator

One of the main components of my job as an engineering & geological tech in oil & gas is knowing how to operate a lot of different software packages. Currently I'd say I'm proficient with Petra, Aries, ArcView, HPDI, IHS, and R2V. I can make my way around Grid. I have used Petrel, though not often or well. And of course, I'm excellent with MS Excel and Access. It's critical that I know how to do these things.

However, it is not enough.

If you don't have the domain knowledge, you're a bit screwed even though you may be able to operate the software. It's like knowing how to use a statistics software package; you can create meaningless analyses all day long. (I do not, incidentally, know any statistics software packages, unless you count Excel. Which I'm sure you shouldn't.)

I do have a lot of domain knowledge - I've worked in this industry for over 10 years - but not always exactly what is applicable to the task at hand. As an example, John (an engineer) asked me yesterday to print some logs for a particular well. Well logs look something like this:


The vertical scale is depth in the well. The squiggly lines represent the values of different things. The turqoise filled-in areas on the right were selected to be filled in based on some cutoff. (I just pulled this one off the web, so I'm not sure of the details.)

I did have some log data for the well John was interested in, and I have software to turn that (digital) log data into an actual log like you see above. However, I had no idea which curves he wanted to see, or how they are typically arranged or displayed. The software also gives you approximately one million options about how to arrange and display the logs - think something like making a chart in Excel, and then increase it by an order of magnitude in terms of options and things you can change.

Here is a screenshot showing many of my log choices (they are the things like CAL2, CAL2_1, CALI, etc., in the list on the lower right side):

I picked some of the ones that sounded familiar, like "Gamma Ray" and "Neut. Porosity" and (off screen) "SFL Resisitivity." And I put together some horrible log that probably wasn't at all standard. And then I called John in.

Now, John doesn't know in a formulaic way how a typical log should look, and he doesn't know how to operate Petra at all. But he was able to tell me, for instance, "OK, Gamma Ray and caliper should go on the same track" and "Put the porosities together and let's go from 0 to 80 but reverse it" and "The resistivity, let's use a log scale." So with him directing and me fiddling around with the software, we were able to put together a useful log for him. It ended up looking like this:

With this experience, hopefully the next time someone asks me to print the logs for a well, I'll be able to put something together that is at least reasonable - something that allows them to come back and give me some directions about what they want instead of just writing me off as obviously clueless.

But this is the kind of thing you get an education for. This is why college classes are not dense and efficient like the kind of professional classes you might take in, say, Petra. No matter how whiz-bang you are at running a program, you have to know what you want to get out of it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rationalization

I sometimes find it amusing how our minds readily supply "reasons" for our irrational feelings. I suppose I should pick on myself before others, so here is a good example from last night.

I went to the gym pretty late. I had done some laundry earlier, and had one load in the dryer (dry but growing wrinkly) and one in the washer. When I got home, Ed had taken the dry clothes and put them in a laundry basket in my closet, and had dried the wet clothes, because he'd needed to get his own load of whites done.

I was angry. The clothes in the basket in my closet would need to be put back into the dryer and fluffed prior to being put away, and he'd done the other load without a dryer sheet. My mind seized on reasons this was wrong.

Can't you let me just have the machines on the weekends [since you have so much more time during the week to do laundry]? I considered asking. But this is ridiculous and untrue.

Now my clothes are ruined and staticky. Also not true - I merely finished up their drying (they were still a bit damp anyway) with a dryer sheet, and they came out fine.

I never handle clothes if I don't handle them in the right order; the clothes in the basket in the closet are doomed now. Well, in fact, I did handle them, and it's not Ed's problem if I'm incapable of the normal process of life.

Finally, I settled on the truth: I am tired and finding my stuff not as I expected was hard on me, but it was totally reasonable to move my clothes around so that you could do laundry, and in fact having both loads dry is more helpful than not.

Fortunately, Ed just left me alone after my original outburst, so that I could go apologize a few minutes later without further incident. It's nice to be trusted to be reasonable even if you can't get there right away. ("I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," he said, "so I thought it was a good time to just chill out.")

So now can I pick on someone else?

The other day, Ed and I saw a DVD player in someone's minivan - the kind that is mounted on the ceiling for the benefit of the backseat passengers. And Ed told me that his dad hates those, and that he'd seen one when Ed was last visiting and said they were stupid because "children should entertain themselves."

"So I guess you weren't really allowed to watch TV as a kid?" I asked.

"What? No, we did," he said.

"Oh. But why didn't you just entertain yourselves instead?"

"Oh."

Yep, this is just me being snarky again. If kids don't need to "entertain themselves" at home (where there are a million things to do), why should they do so while strapped into a tiny space for possibly hours at a time? I also ascertained that Ed's dad watches television, quite often, so apparently he does not how to entertain himself either.

I would think if there was any time it would be all right to let your kids veg out with some mindless entertainment, it would be while traveling in a car. At least when I was a kid you could move around freely. Heck, we took a whole drive to Florida in my mom's station wagon with the back seats folded down so the whole back was a (blanketed, bepillowed) play area. But now that we have all of this safety-mindedness (which I support), car drives must be more boring than ever.

Anyway, I think this was an instance of Ed's dad rejecting something because it's new-fangled and frivolous (i.e., through an irrational prejudice), and then having his mind supply a convenient rationalization.

Good thing that never happens to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lucky in Work

I have been lucky in a lot of ways in my life, but especially lucky in how my career has gone. Despite not having a degree, I make a good salary doing exactly the kind of work I am best suited to, and that I enjoy the most. ("The most" is a strong statement, but I think there are very few actually existing jobs that I would enjoy more.)

I got my first performance evaluation here yesterday afternoon. I've been working here since May, so I was curious (and anxious) to hear what they would say. I met with the President (and we're a small company - about 20 people - so that's not unusual or anything) and she gave me a page of feedback that included her thoughts and the thoughts of the other engineers & geologists who have worked with me.

Aside from a (legitimate) question about why my billable hours aren't better, I got only positive feedback. That is somewhat of an understatement. I don't want to be too specific here in case my coworkers might read this blog, but it seems that the people here have found me quick, smart, competent, and creative about finding ways to solve their problems. Under "weaknesses" my form says "none." (One person even described me as unflappable, which is untrue, but still nice.)

One of my coworkers told me once, at lunch, that she would like to be a dental hygienist. She'd get to interact with people all day long, and when the office wasn't busy, she could chat with the other employees. She would enjoy doing skilled work with her hands.

Now this person is pretty young, and I can't help but hope that she seriously considers pursuing that career. She doesn't really like what she does here. She doesn't feel very confident about it, and she doesn't really enjoy working with computers. The "format" of the job (working with computers all day by yourself) doesn't suit her very well.

It suits me perfectly.

Benford's Law

I'd never heard of Benford's Law before, but this is pretty cool:



For those who can't or don't watch the video, Benford's Law states that, for most natural data (e.g., population sizes, but not something like social security numbers), the most common first digit is 1, then 2, on down to 9, in a specific pattern.

I was curious if this law would apply to the data I worked with, and pretty sure that it would. I opened up the well production database for a random client I'm working on and put the monthly oil production values into a spreadsheet. There were over 16,000 non-zero values. I got the first digit and then did a scatterplot, shown below. The red curve is the values predicted by Benford's Law, and the blue curve is the values I actually obtained. Click for a larger image:

That's a pretty close fit, so I was pleased.

Benford's Law works because most real data is evenly distributed on a log scale, and the numbers on a log scale are farther apart the lower they are (i.e., 1 is further from 2 than 2 is from 3), so that more numbers fall into the lower end of any given order of magnitude, so that more of them will start with 1, and very few will start with 9. That's my understanding from Wikipedia, at least.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Iced Tea

Iced tea is by far my favorite beverage, especially at a restaurant. I like it plain, heavily iced, and not too strong, which is usually how it is served.

Today I ate lunch at Wahoo's Fish Tacos, and noticed something I've wondered at before. Next to the usual soft drink station, they have two iced tea machines. I believe the brand is Shangri-La. And these have writing on them that looks something like this:

100% Natural Iced Tea

Freshly Brewed * No Sugar * No Calories
No Preservatives * No Bitterness


When I first saw it, it gave me pause. Since you don't normally expect to find sugar or calories in iced tea, it took me a minute to confirm to my satisfaction that it wasn't artificially sweetened. No preservatives is fine, though, again, one doesn't normally find preservatives in freshly brewed iced tea, so it's not all that reassuring.

And what of "no bitterness"? That part is confusing to me. Iced tea is somewhat bitter - are they saying theirs is less bitter? Are they trying to reach people who may have disliked iced tea in the past on account of its bitterness, and convince them to try this less-bitter tea?

Having had the tea on many occasions, I can state firmly that it is no more or less bitter than other freshly brewed iced tea. And if you like iced tea, I imagine you either like the bitterness, or are happy to mitigate it with lemon and/or sugar. If anything, the "no bitterness" might make you wonder if this is some kind of modified tea, not like a regular tea.

I freely admit to knowing nothing about the marketing of iced tea in this type of environment, but this signage does not strike me as very useful. Had the tea been unadorned, I would have assumed that it is exactly what it is - very standard, good, freshly-brewed iced tea. The words only made me question these assumptions.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

You've probably heard of this movie archetype - the manic pixie dream girl. She's that young (generally) woman with a whimsical view of life, a tendency to overshare, a lot of energy and light, and eccentric hobbies. In a movie she is typically drawn to a sullen, depressed, repressed, or otherwise drudge-like man. She rescues this man by awakening his interest in life. As with the magical negro, it's not always clear what the MPDG is actually getting out of the relationship. Garden State was a particularly egregious MPDG movie I saw recently.

I've been thinking about this character because Ed and I are in the middle of watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is an unusual MPDG movie in that it shows the consequences of actually having a long-term relationship with one of these women. You might eventually get tired of dealing with someone who is continually impulsive and has no purpose in life.

I have a few trains of thought about this archetype. First, I wonder if the MPDG is primarily a male or female fantasy. Is it that men dream of having some light-filled girl-creature enter and brighten their dull existences? Or is it that women dream that they can immediately let a man in on all of their eccentricities and, instead of being weirded out or disturbed, he'll find them adorable and entrancing? It seems to me that it could go either way. I don't think you often see a Manic Pixie Dream Man, though the love interest in The Family Stone comes close for me (and the woman is definitely a classic Drudge).

The second set of thoughts I've been having is a bit more serious. It strikes me that the MPDG and the Drudge that she rescues both have something in common - neither is applying energy to anything meaningful. The Drudge has a meaningless job (which can be high-powered or not) and basically no meaning in life, and he's generally low-energy. The MPDG has plenty of energy flying in all directions, but she's applying it only to meaningless things like her inevitable eccentric hobbies (making figurines out of potatoes, collecting kitschy trinkets, or whatever).

One vision of the "good life" would be applying energy and creativity to something that matters. I guess in movies, most of these characters are Crazed Artists; the guy in Pi comes to mind. Of course, in real life, such people exist and many are not crazed. In movies, you're either crazed, or you're famous and the movie is a biography. (Or both, of course.)

Ed reports that his high school girlfriend was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I had Mosch as my Magical Negro stand-in (I used to call him my "magical Jewish friend"). I don't think I fit any of these archetypes particularly well. I have some eccentric qualities and overshare, but overall I am a plodding rather than a flitting creature; my life has drudgelike aspects, but I also pursue meaning. Ed is clearly a Crazed Artist type.

Do you bear resemblance to a movie archetype? Are you someone's magical friend, manic pixie dream, drudge suitable for rescuing, or a crazed artist? Are there people in your life who fit these categories? (Do you wish there were?)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Academic Fields

The other night in Prob/Stats, before class, some of the students were discussing graduate school. Specifically, they were talking about whether master's programs in math and/or stats involve writing a thesis. I commented that some do and some do not, from what I've seen, and it partly depends on the purpose of the master's.

"Why would you ever write a thesis in math?" asked one woman. "That's weird."

It made me think about how math isn't what people think it is. When I repeated her question to Ed, he asked, "What, does she think math is a solved problem?" But I don't think it's so much that she thinks everything in math is already known as that her conception of math is probably that it is about learning how to solve different kinds of problems.

A lot of fields are not about what you naively think when you have barely any knowledge of them. Psychology is not, as Sally mentioned, all about why people are crazy (or, alternately, about how to make people like you and do what you want by understanding the inner workings of the mind). History is not about learning the timeline of events. English Lit is, for all I know, probably not about writing papers about how the three rooms in the house in a novel represent the holy trinity or whatever. Computer science is not about learning programming languages (much less, as a coworker once asked me, learning how to use Power Point). Even GIS, which was my major at one point, is not about using software to make maps.

However, I'm pretty sure anthropology is about squatting in the dirt with some unknown natives and keeping a diary about their ways, and paleontology is about carefully excavating big dinosaur fossiles, and archaeology is about looking for ancient cities like Troy. Must be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mad Greens

Today I ate lunch at Mad Greens, which is one of those new chains that mostly does giant salads. (They also have paninis, soups, chips, and the usual brownies & cookies if you want dessert.) I had never eaten at one of these before, so I wanted to check it out. Even though I don't usually prefer the Giant Salad Meal, it seemed like there might be some good quantity of vegetables involved. So I went.

You can order any salad you want from the ingredients they have, and they also have set combinations that you can order by name. All salads start with a base of either romaine, baby greens, or spinach. I ordered the "Ty Cobb Salad", which has (by default) romaine, tomatoes, bacon, avocado, red onions, and boiled egg. I asked for baby greens instead of the romaine (which looked a bit pallid) - substitutions are no problem. I chose not to pay extra to add a protein (they have a lot of options including tofu, salmon, chicken, and steak of various types), and I chose ranch as my dressing (the recommended one for my salad was spicy bleu cheese).

They make your salad in a giant metal bowl and, if you are eating in, serve it to you in a smaller metal bowl. The salads come in two sizes and I had ordered the larger size. It was pretty big - probably larger than you'd ever make a salad at home, even if you meant it to be your whole meal.

The ingredients in my salad were very good, especially the bacon, which was thick and very bacony. The avocados, bacon, and eggs came in somewhat smaller amounts than you might normally expect in a cobb salad of that size, I thought, but when I ate the salad there seemed to be plenty of all of them. The dressing was good and came in the right amount. (The guy who made it asked me if I wanted a small, medium, or large amount. I asked for medium and he mixed it all into the salad for me. I assume you could also get it on the side if you wished.)

The salad plus iced tea came to about $9. Had I added a protein it would have been $11-14 depending on which one I'd chosen. So those places are definitely not cheap.

Ultimately I did not feel very satisfied by my meal. It was a great salad, but I am not really used to having a giant salad as my whole meal, and either the fact that it wasn't hot food or the lack of protein made it not feel like I had really eaten. (I guess if you consider that salad greens have almost no calories - though they have lots of nice nutrients - my lunch really consisted of a medium-large quantity of ranch dressing and about 1/4 cup each of bacon, boiled egg, and avocado.)

If you like to eat a giant salad and paying $12 or so (which is, after all, what you'd pay for the same thing in a restaurant once you include tip) doesn't bother you, then I'd recommend Mad Greens. I enjoyed the quality and convenience of the food. I probably won't go back there myself, though.

Iron

Ed and I have new arrangement whereby we travel to our local 24 Hour Fitness three times a week. We spend about 25 minutes lifting weights (we are actually using the same chart, designed by me, though naturally we have our own copies and are using different amounts of weight), and then 20-25 minutes doing some kind of cardio.

It makes me so high.

I usually don't really want to go. "Those weights are heavy!" as Mosch used to say. And the 20 minutes on the treadmill afterwards is somewhat torturous. But when I'm finished, I am often filled with a really strong feeling of well-being, and I find that later the same day, or the next day even, I am extra in love with Ed too. We had this conversation a few days ago:

Me: I just realized why I'm so in love with you right now!

Him: You pumped iron.

Me: Yeah. Is that weird?

Him: Nope. I'm all hopped up on endorphins too.

I joked the other day that we don't need to have sex anymore now that we have this instead.

I've gone through periods of doing strength training before, and I remember that I've always really liked it, despite how easy it is to get out of the habit (and despite the ways that it sucks). But I really hope I can remember how directly good this makes me feel, independent of it being good for you or whatever. I swear I fell asleep last night with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dogville

Ed and I watched Dogville recently. I'd seen (and enjoyed) the movie before, and was keen to have him see it. I remember Sally said something to me before the first time I saw it, which I'd never managed to reply to after I saw it (I think). Specifically, she wrote,
...the majority of reviews I read indicated that the reviewers did not understand what the movie was about even after having seen the whole thing...
and when I saw it, I totally agreed. The rest of this post will have Dogville spoilers, so if you haven't seen it and intend to and don't want it spoiled, please stop reading now.

So, the basic plot of the movie is that Kidman's character (Grace) shows up in this mountain town during the Great Depression; she's on the run from some gangsters. The townsfolk decide to let her stay for 2 weeks, and she sets out to prove herself useful by helping everyone. They resist at first, but come to appreciate her help, and all is well for a while.

At some point, though, things start to go bad. Wanted posters appear and the townsfolk use them as an excuse to demand more labor from Grace. She attempts to escape at one point but is thwarted, and after that is more literally enslaved, with a collar and chain connecting her to a bell (so she can be heard) and a giant wheel that she has to drag around. And she's raped by most of the men in the town. (This is a terrible plot summary, but hopefully you've already seen the movie and I'm just refreshing your memory.)

Eventually, her boyfriend in the town calls the number on the card one of the gangsters gave him in the very beginning, hoping that she'll be taken away because she represents a threat to his image of himself as a moral person. When the gangsters show up, we find out that the head gangster is her father. Grace and her dad have a long talk in the car. She starts out on the side of the townsfolk, despite how they've treated her, but after thinking on it some more, decides that the world would be better off without them, and has them all murdered (including their children) and the town burned down.

Now, this is what Roger Ebert (who gave the movie 2 stars out of 4) wrote:
In [director Lars von Trier's] town, which I fear works as a parable of America, the citizens are xenophobic, vindictive, jealous, suspicious and capable of rape and murder. His dislike of the United States (which he has never visited, since he is afraid of airplanes) is so palpable that it flies beyond criticism into the realm of derangement.
and
What von Trier is determined to show is that Americans are not friendly, we are suspicious of outsiders, we cave in to authority, we are inherently violent, etc. All of these things are true, and all of these things are untrue. It's a big country, and it has a lot of different kinds of people. Without stepping too far out on a limb, however, I doubt that we have any villages where the helpless visitor would eventually be chained to a bed and raped by every man in town.
You can also go see David Edelstein's review for Slate here.

Now I know nothing of von Trier, so for all I know this could have been his exact intention and maybe he really does hate Americans and think we're all assholes. But since I'm looking at the movie and not the director, I don't really care what his intention was; I feel free to judge the movie on its own terms.

Some review I read (which I can't easily locate now, years later) thought that the ending just showed the utter bleakness of human nature, as inevitable crime is inevitably followed by excessive retribution. And I didn't see it that way at all.

Grace offers herself up, Christlike, and she maintains that mien right through the conversation with her father. In that conversation, her father calls her arrogant for refusing to apply the same high standards to others that she does to herself. He calls that the ultimate arrogance. And she rejects this idea, but leaves the car to wander around the town.

The turning point in her thoughts (which the narrator helpfully illuminates for us), and the point that I found really thrilling, is when she shifts from the question "Wouldn't I do the same as them in their place?" to the question "If I acted as they have, would I have any defense for myself? Would I not deserve whatever came upon me?" (These are paraphrases.) It is after this realization that she orders the town destroyed and the occupants killed.

I don't, of course, condone the murder of whole families, whatever crimes the parents might have committed. And the ending is a bit too horrifying in execution to be satisfying, at least to me. But I actually do love the moral reasoning. It's not about whether you're really any better than others; there's an actual standard to which everyone should be held, whether you yourself meet it or not. (There's some Kant for you.) And I like the turning on its head of the Christ idea. It changes from "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" to "Ah shit, the world would just be better off without these assholes, and they deserve it." It's like Noah's flood without, well, Noah. (I guess the dog, the only member of the town who is spared, is Noah, but I don't want to take this analogy too far.)

Also, contrary to Ebert's assertion that hardly anyone will enjoy the movie once, and nobody twice, I did enjoy it thoroughly both times. I find it rather captivating.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tests Update

I don't usually post test results, but since Sally did I thought I'd go along.

I got my prob/stats test back tonight, and I got a 94%. I thought I had missed up to two questions - one that I just didn't know how to do, and one that I knew how to do except that I got "infinity" as the answer (for an expected value) and that seemed wrong, so I worked on it some more and finally gave up. But infinity was the correct answer, and he gave me credit for it even though I never quite said it was the answer. (I wrote something like "I don't know how to solve this since ln(infinity) -> (infinity)".) The other one I did miss.

Also tonight, I took my test in Discrete. It was probability plus the binomial theorem, and I had all of the material down cold. But the prof put six multi-part questions on the test, many along the lines of, "Explain why xyz," so there was a lot of writing and drawing and solving. And there is one technique that I always, always have problems with (related to generating functions) so that I couldn't solve part of one problem within the time allotted, even though I knew the answer (and wrote it down).

However, only one person had finished on time (and he had finished way early, so perhaps bombed it), so our prof speculated that he had made the test too long and promised to grade the best 5 problems, so I went ahead and left. I didn't, however, have time to full check the rest of my work, and the one question I did check had an obvious error. (No, Tam, 2^4 is not 8. That's 2 times 4.) So I am not as confident as I'd like that my other problems will be all right.

It was kind of an amazing test - it seemed to me that he put together the hardest possible test over the given material. I will probably have an A (if the universe is just), but it was difficult.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Primarily Plants

I wrote earlier about Linda Bacon's book Health at Every Size. I've now finished most of the book. Along with some details and a fair bit of encouragement, Bacon has some pretty simple eating advice:
Enjoy a variety of real food, primarily plants.
Each word is important. She emphasizes enjoyment (taking time to savor your food and also learning to enjoy cooking as well as, e.g., shopping at the farmer's market), variety (not eating the same things over and over again), "realness" (staying away from processed foods), and a plant-based diet.

There is one recipe in the book, for beets, but she does give a little bit of advice, like that if you find vegetables too bitter, roasting them often brings out their sweetness. (Apparently sour tastes like lemon juice also decrease the perception of bitterness. I hate sour and don't seem to taste bitter very strongly, so I'm going to promptly ignore that advice.)

The book has a lot of encouragement that you can change your tastes, and I have found this to be true when I've tried it. If you lay off processed, overly salty and sweet foods for a while, you do learn to appreciate "normal" food more. It's a slightly difficult road to go down, though, at least for me, and the road in the other direction is quite easy. (Taco Bell might taste like crap the first couple of times but then it's delicious! And so easy! And cheap!)

Along with her emphasis that diets don't work ("even if you don't call it a diet!"), Bacon doesn't suggest that you forbid yourself any particular foods. For things that are comparatively energy dense or unhealthy, she suggests monitoring yourself for the point at which pleasure starts to drop off, and listening to that signal, and seeing if you've maybe had enough at that point. And I have found (independent of reading this book) that while I could eat several Twix bars or something, I can also keep a large bar of really good chocolate in my living room and eat very small amounts of it.

The book argues, as I've seen argued elsewhere, that Americans' obsession with protein is misplaced - that we all get plenty and most of us get far more than is necessary. A vegetarian diet is definitely not necessary for health, but a normal vegetarian diet with a variety of foods (not one dominated by sweets) provides plenty of protein.

Honestly, I can never figure out who is right on this protein issue, possibly because I haven't done any real research myself. According to the standard (government-sanctioned?) information about how much protein I should get, it's not automatic that I would get that much from a healthy diet. But that number may be something like enough protein for 98% of people my size (a population that includes men my size who have a lot more muscle), and I don't know what the curve looks like. For that matter, I have no idea how "how much protein X person needs" is calculated in the first place. What are the signs of protein deficiency/sufficiency?

Bacon advises getting some protein and some fat in every meal, for satiety and because (she claims) fat increases nutrient absorption. (She cites studies to this effect, I just haven't looked at them.) She generally advocates not being afraid of fat and not worrying too much about it, but substituting plant for animal fats where possible.

And as I mentioned above, she really does advocate enjoying eating. Her suggestions include not eating while distracted by other things (hard for me; I have a seriously ingrained habit of watching TV while I eat), eating family dinners together, and eating foods that you enjoy (while hopefully training yourself to enjoy more natural, home-cooked foods).

I think that's about as good a summary as I can give about this aspect of the book. I still recommend reading it; it's a pretty easy read in any case.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Stats Courses at Metro

For the benefit of anyone who might enjoy browsing course listings at various colleges and universities, I present the complete selection of statistics courses offered at my school, the Metropolitan State College of Denver:

MTH 1210-4 Introduction to Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: two years of high school algebra or equivalent and an appropriate score on the mathematics preassessment test
This course is an introduction to the principles and techniques of descriptive statistics, probability, regression analysis, and statistical inference (estimation and tests of hypotheses). Students will work with data on problems related to their own interest or field of study. Credit will not be given for both MTH 1210 and MTH 1230. (General Studies—Level I, Mathematics) (GT—MA1)

MTH 1230-2 Introduction to Probability and Descriptive Statistics (2 + 0)
This course introduces the principles and techniques of probability, descriptive statistics and probability distributions. Students will learn collecting, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from data in their chosen field and using statistical software. This course will not count toward graduation if MTH 1210 is also taken.

MTH 3210-4 Probability and Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 2410 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the application and theory of the principles of probability and statistics in the sciences and engineering. It includes random variables, probability distributions, sampling, estimation, tests of hypotheses, and regression analysis.

MTH 3220-4 Design of Experiments (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210 and either MTH 2140 or MTH 3140, all with grades of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the application and theory of statistical methods in the sciences and engineering. It includes analysis of variance, factorial experiments, and regression analysis.

MTH 3240-4 Environmental Statistics(4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 1110 and MTH 1210 with grades of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This is a course in inferential statistics, sampling techniques, and quality control as they relate to environmental issues. Students will work with data and problems related to the environmental science field of study. This course does not count towards a major or minor in mathematics.

MTH 4210-4 Probability Theory (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210 with a grade of “C” or better and senior standing, or permission of instructor
This is a course in the theory of discrete and continuous probability with applications in the sciences and engineering. It includes sample spaces, combinatorial probability, random variables, sets of random variables and random sequences, conditional probability, expectation, and special distributions. It also includes beginning analysis of Markov chains. (Senior Experience)

MTH 4220-4 Stochastic Processes (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 4210 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This course is an introduction to random processes with applications in the sciences and engineering. It includes examples and properties of stochastic processes, specifically, it includes discrete and continuous Markov processes, the exponential distribution and Poisson process, and other processes including queuing theory.

MTH 4230-4 Applied and Computational Statistics (4 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3220 with a grade of “C” or better, or permission of instructor
This course will cover advanced methods in statistics, including regression and multivariate analysis. Additional topics will be chosen from time series, survival analysis, sampling, bootstrap methods, Taguchi designs, or others chosen by the instructor. The students will use statistical computer packages.

MTH 4290-1 Senior Statistics Project (1 + 0)
Prerequisites: MTH 3210, MTH 3220, MTH 4210, and permission of instructor
In this course, students will apply the statistical techniques covered in previous course work to a real-world situation. The students will write a report containing a description of the problem, statistical tools used, design of experiments, analysis, and results of the study.
I am currently taking 3210, and I have also taken 1210 (required for my previous major). I would love to take Probability Theory (4210).

Strange Conclusion

Today, BPS Research Digest discusses a finding that people's happiness is more readily increased by small, repeated events like going to the gym than by large, one-time events like winning the lottery. I enjoyed the article, but it did end on an odd note:
So what are the policy implications for this new research. The researchers said single-shot events such as a tax cut will probably have little impact on people's happiness. By contrast, "policies that lead to small but repeated gains are likely to succeed."
Talk about shoehorning a study into liberal talking points! Unless we're talking about a tax rebate where the government sends you a big (or, generally, not so big) check, a tax cut is not a large, single-shot event. I mean, the news of a tax cut having been passed might be a single event, but actually keeping more money from each paycheck seems to be an exact example of a "small but repeated gain." No?

Names

In the shower this morning, I was pondering names. I imagined naming a baby girl after one of Obama's daughters. And then I wondered if the name "Barack" will get popular now.

My mind wandered, and I thought about Abraham Lincoln, about how those old testment names like Abraham were popular back then. I wondered how his name affected the election, if at all. Did it sound totally everyday?

Then I thought, "Abraham Lincoln - how could you not elect someone named Abraham Lincoln??" feeling how presidential and good the name sounded.

Because of Abraham Lincoln, of course. Heh.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Probability

One thing I've learned a lot about in my Discrete Math class, somewhat inadvertently, is how my fellow students learn and the ways they struggle. There are only twelve of us in the class, and our prof typically does only a little bit of lecturing before having us work on problems and lecture each other. Quite frequently we get sent to the board with markers to write out solutions and, more importantly and unusually, explain things to each other. He will often have several of us explain the same concept for the benefit of the class.

There is, of course, a range of ability within the class, and each person's ability also changes from task to task. Sometimes I have seen other people pick things up more quickly than I do, and at other times I've been stunned as the rest of the class has seemed to turn into morons.

One of the topics my class has really struggled with has been probability. I also had some probability this semester in my Prob & Stats class (as you'd expect), and people seemed to struggle with it there too, though it's not as obvious in a large and non-interactive classroom. But I've heard from some people that, when they took that class, they had no problem with the statistics part, but did badly with probability.

I am no expert at probability and I have learned new things in both of these classes, but probability has always come somewhat easily to me. There seem to be a very small number of principles, and then you just have to figure out how to apply them to the situations in the problems. The principles themselves seem to make logical sense. Because there is a not a lot of fiddly algebra and everything makes logical sense (rather than seeming arbitrary), I do very well with it.

I have guesses about why other people struggle with it. I think one problem is that all the problems are word problems. A couple of students in my prob & stats class were talking once about not being able to figure out what the questions were asking - questions like "What is the probability that no more than 4 valves fail?" And in Discrete, even my professor has struggled to understand the questions sometimes, though he's obviously quite smart.

I think the other problem in probability is that, because it's about applying a few rules to diverse situations, it's not a field of math where you are given extremely specific question types and shown how to solve them. In calculus, for instance, you typically have a section of very similar questions and you are shown methods that always yield the correct results. In probability you really have to analyze the situation and think of equivalences between disparate types of events.

These are just guesses. There have been times when I've really wanted to tear my hair out at the struggles my classmates were having with things that seemed very straightforward to me, and I've had to remind myself that they haven't seemed dumb or underprepared on all topics, but that there is apparently something specifically difficult about probability.

What have your experiences been like?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Universal Health Care

On Sally's last visit here, I admitted to being more or less in favor of universal health care in America. I had neck surgery last year, and one thing that I said was that, yes, I might have had to wait longer in Canada or the UK (though it's hard to be sure, of course), but if the only reason I don't have to wait longer here is that other people can't get into line at all, that's not such a good thing. I think we actually were talking about knee surgery, but the principle is the same.

I got mocked for this later, but I stand by it.

Sally asked me if I then see health care as fundamentally different from something like a widescreen TV, which people may also want and not be able to afford? And yes, I do. The reason I do is that the thought of not being able to obtain life-saving (or -extending or significantly -enhancing) care is intolerable to me, while the thought of not being able to buy a Hummer or a yacht or a particularly nice piece of wall art or a house is not.

"Intolerable" really has to be judged relative to overall wealth. I would not bankrupt the country by having us provide universal health care to, say, all of Africa, even though the illnesses and deaths of people there are just as real and pressing. Lines have to be drawn for practical reasons. But when a country can afford to meet a vital and universal need, that will otherwise remain largely unmet, I think it ought to do so.

What about food? Well, on a kind of basic level, the vast majority of Americans seem to be able to obtain sufficient food. We do have food stamps, and I'm in favor of that. I would not actually mind if there was "universal food" - maybe some kind of flat government food allowance that everyone could get - but it doesn't seem like it would add much to what we have now. But I do think the government should act to prevent starvation in a rich country like ours.

Health care is different from food in that it's not a fully predictable flat cost type of thing. The cost varies hugely from person to person. And, unlike food, it can be very expensive even by our standards. (Food is expensive for some people in some places, but even high-quality, high-convenience groceries would cost me less than 5% of my gross income.)

It is difficult to get private insurance, at least for a lot of people. Among those not covered by the companies they work for, generally only the older and sicker actually try to buy private insurance, which means it's bound to cost more. Without being part of a "pool" some people just don't make any sense to insure. (Take my dad, for instance. At age 50 he'd had two heart attacks and had uncontrolled Type II diabetes. He could never have been insured profitably at any cost he could have afforded.)

For an individual, it might make sense to try to get a job that comes with insurance, but there are millions of jobs that don't provide it, and someone has to do those jobs. And I don't think forcing more companies to provide more insurance is a good solution at all.

So, despite the problems involved, I am in favor of some kind of more universal solution run by the government. I don't know how it can best be done, so I hope that Obama, if he's able to do this, has good wonks. (I think he actually does; he seems very pragmatic and reasonable in general.)

Going back to the "Would you really want to have to wait six months or a year for a surgery you needed?" question, although I don't think you should vote exclusively based on what you'd personally prefer, I would personally far prefer to live in Canada or the UK in terms of health care, despite that I've always had good insurance and gotten excellent care so far. And I mean that from a purely selfish perspective.

Confabulous

The Internet makes it easy to get all of your news and analysis from sites that share your worldview, which has the unfortunate tendency to reinforce what you already think, while making your opponents' ideas seem increasingly ridiculous and out of touch with "reality." I find I'm a lot more reasonable and sane (and even relaxed) if I take in information from a variety of sources, including some that come from a different perspective.

I've recently been really enjoying The Confabulum, the group blog of the moderate conservatives behind Culture 11. I can't read blogs like the Corner because so much of what they say is really ridiculous to me, but I can enjoy this level of discourse.

The post "And Then What II" by Conor Friedersdorf is good and representative. An excerpt:

I’d now like to levy some criticism of my own. The fact is that most conservatives — not all, but most — believe that were their model of society adopted, human suffering would be reduced, not exacerbated or ignored. It is mighty convenient, as Freddie lays out his account of conservatives and suffering, that he ignores the many conservatives who tithe to charity, or build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or participate in Catholic charities, or whose churches adopt communities in Africa, or who donate to secular charities. Don’t they offer a perfectly respectable conservative answer to "And then what?" Who is ignoring human suffering more, those conservatives who give to charity and also favor a limited government and low taxes, or liberals who favor higher government spending on social programs and willingly pay higher taxes, but who don’t themselves donate to any charity? It isn’t so clear, is it. Someone who believes that government is on balance the most efficient or least harmful way to serve the less fortunate is surely justified in advocating for higher government spending. Obviously it makes as much sense for those who are deeply suspicious of government — who in fact believe it often harms the people it is trying to help — to favor alternative means.
Anyway, if you're in the market for a conservative blog, check it out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Voted

I voted this morning at my local early vote location. The line was existent but not bad - I think I waited about 20 minutes. The machine seemed to work fine, though it is a receipt-free electronic touch screen thing, so there's no way to know if it actually recorded my vote properly. I would never choose this as a voting system, but without evidence of actual wrongdoing or systematic malfunctions, I'm not going to worry about it. It was certainly convenient and easy to use.

I voted for Obama and I voted Democrat for the Congresscritters. I voted to retain and not retain judges in accordance with the committee's recommendations. I skipped several of the very local races where I know nothing about the candidates; I decided to let the people who are more informed (or more partisan, or whatever) decide those races.

I voted no on most of the ballot measures.

I voted against letting the gambling towns vote to have longer hours and higher-stakes games with most of the money going to fund community colleges.

I voted against making employers have good reasons for firing people.

I voted against something that was supposed to give more money to help the disabled.

I voted against higher severance taxes on oil and gas.

I voted against prohibiting affirmative action by the state. (Correction: I actually can't remember how I voted on this. I was torn.)

I voted against defining "person" in the Constitution to include fertilized eggs, embroys, and fetuses.

I voted against disallowing local governments from taking automatic deductions from paychecks except for legally required things. (This is about unions. I've intuited from the various ads that some firefighters and other public servants get union dues automatically withdrawn, though they can opt out if they wish. The new bill would have prohibited that. I decided not to prohibit it.)

I voted FOR making it illegal to require someone to be in a union to work at a certain place.

I voted against holding company executives criminally responsible for the criminal acts of their companies.

I voted against some very complicated thing about funding education. (This offensive TV ad about it didn't help.)

I voted against requiring companies with more than 20 employees to provide health insurance.

I voted against requiring companies to provide a safe working environment and making it easier for lawsuits to be filed if a worker is injured.

So, basically, I voted Democrat on the national parts of the ticket, and on some state races, and then voted against the common man for most local measures. Or something.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Advantages of a Log Scale

One option that Excel has, and that I imagine most graphing software has, is to convert one of the scales from the regular linear scale to a logarithmic one. In a logarithmic scale, the equally-spaced intervals represent powers of 10.

In the oil industry, we use log scale charts quite a lot, and they often make the data more sensical. Today I made the following scatter plot, which shows the oil to gas ratio for some wells in Oklahoma. The x axis represents how long the well has been running, so the idea is to see how these ratios might change over time, and how they vary from well to well. It came out like this (get a bigger image by clicking):
This is obviously not acceptable as a graph. The couple of really high values near the top edge make all of the more normal values clump together at the very bottom. And no matter how much I limit the range of the y axis, I get basically the same effect. Here I've limited it to 2000, which cuts off some data points:

It's better, but it's still not great. Then I tried a log scale:

And voila. Suddenly this data makes sense.

Log scales are a bit tricky for people to read, so it does help to add the minor gridlines.

The spacing of the minor gridlines helps remind you how the scale works, and you can also use them as a guide. The line immediately above 1000 is 2000, then the next one is 3000, etc., and they are spaced accordingly.

I love these types of data representation issues and when I make a display that is more intelligible than it might have been, it makes me really happy and proud.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Health at Every Size


Right now I am reading Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Apparently Health at Every Size (HAES) is a general movement, of which Bacon is a part. The book essentially argues that you are unlikely to succeed at intentional weight loss over the long term, and that trying to do so might harm rather than improve your health, but that you can improve your health regardless of your size by other measures.

I haven't finished the book, so I won't try a full review, but although it's written at a fairly low level (similar to diet books in general) and is slightly polemical, I have only minor quibbles with what I've read so far. Bacon is an actual researcher with the kind of credentials you'd want to see. There are hundreds of citations throughout the text so that if she asserts something, you can easily investigate if you're so inclined. I think the book is worth reading whether you end up agreeing with its conclusions or not.

Bacon and some other researchers who are much more supportive of weight loss did a study in which they enrolled 78 (I think) overweight women and put them into two groups. Both groups met once per week for six months (divided into smaller support groups of 9 or 10 people), and then once a month for six months. One group followed a HAES approach and the other was a standard diet and exercise group.

After two years, neither group had lost any weight, but the HAES group had several measurable health improvements (things like fitness, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure), while the only statistically significant change among the dieting group was self-esteem, which went down.

This was, of course, only one study.

Overall, I find this approach appealing. I have lost a lot of weight (over 60 lbs) intentionally in the past, but I've regained a lot of it over time. I know that the key to maintaining the loss is to get a lot of exercise and maintain a constant focus on it, and I can't seem to do that at all right now - especially the "maintain focus" part. I can't seem to do anything systematic about my weight for more than about a week at a time.

What I can do (and I'm just starting the actual recommendations part of the book, so I'm now just writing about my own experience) is exercise and include more fruits and vegetables in my diet regardless of what or how much I am eating in general. And for now that's working out pretty well. I've got Ed going to the gym with me three times a week (which I generally enjoy a lot even though it's easier not to go) and I'm regularly eating pretty high amounts of fruits and veggies. (I'd say I average about 5 or 6 servings a day, which is not super high, but is at least within recommendations.)

I don't know. If I continue to inexorably gain weight I may have to revisit the idea of intentional weight loss. But if I can maintain some weight or other and increase my fitness to a normal level while eating a somewhat healthy diet, that might be a better approach for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timely Advice for a Friend

Take note please of some pithy getting-into-grad-school advice.

Ballot Issues

I'll be voting any day now (hopefully before election day), so the other day I sat down with the government-provided booklet that is mailed to voters describing the various ballot measures I get to vote on, and giving recommendations on retention of judges. (Surprisingly, one of the judges was strongly recommended NOT to be retained. That was fun reading.)

One proposition I get to vote on, Amendment 48, would alter the Colorado Constitution to define the word "person" to include fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses. Obviously I will be voting no on that.

A lot of the other measures have a deep similarity based on the TABOR bill that is active here. That stands for "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" and it says that, basically, the state government is not allowed to grow by more than inflation, and any extra tax money collected has to be refunded every year.* Any spending that wants to be exempt from TABOR has to be approved specially by voters.

So we get a million of those every election cycle.

For instance, Amendment 50 would allow the cities in which gambling is allowed to vote to extend the hours and/or the types of games that are allowed and, if they do so, the extra money collected would be allocated 22% to those cities and 78% to community colleges, and it would be exempt from TABOR. It is being billed as a way to increase funding for our community colleges "without a tax increase." Of course, the money for this does in fact come from additional taxes (it's not free money from heaven), but I suppose it's not an increase in the rate of a tax.

Or there is Amendment 59, which ballotpedia says "would create a state education fund savings account within the state education fund, to be funded from 10% of the monies deposited into the state education fund, including revenue that would otherwise be rebated under the TABOR rules, which the measure calls for diverting to the state education fund; would also require that state educational spending increase by rate of inflation plus 1% through fiscal year 2010-2011; and restricts spending of the state education fund to specific education expenses ."

I honestly don't know how to vote on these things. I mean, if they had one that said senior citizens would be charged extra for eyeglasses and that money would be allocated to a special fund to provide extra pet waste collection bags in city parks, exempt from TABOR, I would vote no. But I don't intrinsically object (in the case of Amendment 50) to longer gambling hours, local control, or funding community colleges. Except that all of these different bills make it impossible for someone (the legislature, I suppose) to sit down and figure out the state budget in a rational manner. I don't want all kinds of unnecessary money (which is, again, not free money from heaven) overfunding a bunch of pet projects.

Should I abstain from voting on things I'm not sure about, allowing those who feel more strongly to control the outcomes, or should I guess that my own guesses or gut feelings are better than (or at least equal to) the firmly held opinions of people who might be simple-minded morons or ideologically opposed to me? Or should I vote "no" on things I'm not sure of, out of some general conservative instinct? (Or, as my mother once told me, "yes" because "if someone thinks it's a good idea, it probably is.") I feel an internal pressure to vote on every issue.

As far as the Presidential race goes, I am unequivocally in favor of Obama. On social issues, which are important to me, I am firmly liberal, and the Republicans of the past 8 years have done nothing to shrink the size of government (quite the opposite), which is the only thing I might (might) favor about them. They've ramped up federal spending crazily and at least Bush and Cheney have fought for (I can't even say "argued for" since they have hardly bothered to inform the rest of us) untrammeled executive power completely out of line with what the Constitution actually says. McCain was my favorite Republican in the primaries, but I haven't liked much that I've seen since. And his completely cynical and insulting choice of Sarah Palin, who started off seeming underqualified and is now shown to be incapable-of-becoming-qualified (IMO) for VP...well, it doesn't help. And, outside of his trade protectionism, I see nothing to dislike in Obama.

I'm looking forward to watching the results Nov 4.

(*Disclaimer for this whole post - I am not an expert on Colorado law and have not done extra research to ensure accuracy. If you are seriously concerned about the specifics of anything you read here, please do your own research. I am quite likely simplifying or outright wrongifying some of it.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My Haircut

It's been a few weeks since I shaved my head. Since then, I've trimmed the hair down to 1/4" (I think) with the trimmer I have at home (a heavy industrial seeming thing that is pretty delightful to use), and then I got a professional trim at Great Clips, to 3/8", with a decent neck and around-the-ears shave. (They charged me $5. Woot!)

(Also amusing: they have me in their computer there, so when I gave the woman my phone number, and she looked it up, she looked at me and said, "So I guess you're not going with the bob anymore!")

So my head is plushy-soft all over, just short enough to still stick out in every direction and not fall down into a regular boy-type haircut. It is just slightly shorter than cutie Matt Damon's over there.

I fucking love it. I am right now at the point of thinking I will never change it against because, just, why? It's awesome.

Before I shaved my head, I was afraid it would look bad. And frankly, one of the fears I had was that skinny girls can get away with having a shaved head or very short hair, but it looks bad on fat girls. And of course, the truth is, cute skinny girls will usually look cute in almost any style. It's like Matt Damon up there - what kind of haircut would make him not hot? He starts off hot and that's a huge boon.

But I'm starting to think that a crew cut is actually a comparative advantage for a fat woman, if you don't mind looking butch. Because my observation about myself is that I am a lot better looking as a butch than as a femme. I am not really either one - a butch or a femme. But my old hairstyle was a regular girl type of cut, and this one is distinctly butch. (I suspect that on a skinny girl, a haircut like this might give you kind of a "pixie" look and not be so butch.)

The net effect on my appearance as judged by other people might still be negative, because being butch might be negative in the eyes of many. But among people who like both looks, I have to think this makes me more attractive. I certainly look more attractive to myself, and to Ed.

Last night at the gym, I picked up a couple of hand weights to do some bicep curls, and then happened to see myself in the mirror. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt. And I looked incredible. The combination of the weights and the shirt and the short hair - it was crazy butch and I just loved it. I felt super macho.

I have a slight inclination to scoff at women who claim they make some traditionally supported beauty decision (like surgical breast augmentation) not to please others but because it makes them feel more confident, but that's how I feel about the hair style. It makes me feel attractive and strong. And I'm going to keep it.

Terrestrial Critter

One of the blog I subscribe to is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, and over time I have noticed something about my responses to the pictures they have there, to wit: I am basically bored by pictures of stars or other space objects (galaxies, nebulae, etc.), but vastly interested in pictures that show planets or landscapes.

For instance, boring:


interesting:

Saturn
pretty but boring:

Sharpless 171
fascinating:

Saturn's moon Enceladus as seen from Cassini

intriguing:

red cliffs on Mars

gorgeous:

the Sun

I'm not sure why there is such a disparity in how I view these.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Can't Be Much To It

Ed has a friend (who I guess by now is my friend too) who is very down on software engineering. Software engineering isn't about how to write code - it's more about how to manage and run software projects. So it is partly about how to write code, but it's more about the general procedural aspects of how to write code (e.g., is it better to code in pairs? what kind of coding standards should be in place? how does a group manage working on code together? how can we make sure we're building what the client wanted?) than on things like how to craft the perfect algorithm.

Anyway, Adam basically thinks software engineering, at least as currently taught/practiced is full of shit. He had one course in it in college and what he learned was, he felt, a lot of "buzzwords." He later had to regurgitate these in interviews, and found that basically doing some reading on Wikipedia was enough to satisfy the demands of this process. ("Oh, I'm supposed to know what 'agile' means, fine...")

There are a lot of buzzwords, you could say, in business in general, but there are also stark differences in methodologies. I'm sure (as Ed pointed out to me) that "assembly line" was once a buzz word. It's also a significant, radical way to manufacture things. And if you're going to make up new ways of doing things, then assigning words to them enables discussion, right? So if I've decided that these five or so factors are key to the way I want to work in a team to program something, and I name that style "Extreme Programming" (or XP) then is that wrong?

And if I wanted to go to work for a company that practiced XP, it's reasonable to think I should know the term, right? And have an opinion about it? Or concerns and questions about the actual implementation. I should know whether I love or hate or am curious to try pair programming, for instance.

I feel like Adam's dismissal of "buzzwords" in software engineering is related to a general tendency that some people have to assume that, if they don't know much about something, there must not be much to it. Some things, like brain surgery, seem intrinsically complicated and aren't subject to this phenomenon, but other things, like sociology, get no respect. What, don't they just write papers about how people act just like anyone with any common sense would think they'd act?

I imagine most fields have their bullshitty elements. There are probably buzzwords in reinforced concrete structure design. But I try really hard not to assume that academic disciplines have nothing to them, just because I know nothing about them, because I've found that usually, the more you learn about a field, the more you see it expand before you into something deep and rich with detail.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Discrete Math

One of my classes this semester is Discrete Math. I ended up in this class because of a scheduling problem. I originally had Linear Algebra MW 5:00-6:50, and then Prob & Stats 7:00-9:00. Unfortunately, my linear algebra class was cancelled, leaving me just the one class. I decided that an extra math class is always a good thing, and signed up for Discrete Math in the empty slot.

I didn't actually know what Discrete Math was, I think.

The "discrete" in discrete math contrasts basically with the continuity of, e.g., calculus. When we deal with functions, we are mostly dealing with functions in the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, ...). There are things like set theory, combinatorics, probability, and graph theory.

One of the most challenging topics for me so far has been recursively defined relations. These are things like, for instance, the Fibonacci sequence,

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8

where each number is the sum of the previous two.

We've been learning different techniques for determining the "closed form" rule for such a sequence, which allows you to do something like calculate the 100th term without calculating all of the ones in between. (The "closed form rule" is what you usually get for a function, like f(x) = x + 3, instead of it being defined in terms of the previous term or terms.)

So far, the class is very interesting. There are about 12 students, so they all become familiar pretty quickly, and our professor includes a lot of class discussion and has us lecture each other at the board a fair amount by asking questions like, "Can anyone come up here and explain why this makes sense?" or "Would someone repeat what I just said in a different way?"